The le­gend of the Head­less Horse­man

The Head­less Horse­man: Le­gend of the Black Swamp’s haunted plains

Central and North Burnett Times - - RURAL WEEKLY - ERLE LEVEY erle.levey@sc­

He passed through the camp like a phan­tom, caus­ing the cat­tle to rush and the dogs to shrink away ... ter­ror would fol­low ... cat­tle, dogs, drovers all in a wild stam­pede.

— J.E.P Bushby

“WHEN the lands were wide and the fences few, un­easy was the stock­man when the sun was down and his thou­sand charges scat­tered for miles around the camp fire ... He would re­mem­ber the story they were telling around Bourke ... that the Head­less Horse­man was again haunt­ing the plains at the Black Swamp near the bor­der ...”

From the mists of time a shadow emerged and a le­gend be­gan.

We are sit­ting at a road­side rest area on the edge of the Hay Plains, the flat­test area in the South­ern Hemi­sphere.

Salt­bush plains stretch as far as the eye can see. And here at the Black Swamp the Cobb High­way takes one of its very few bends.

We are about halfway be­tween De­niliquin and Hay, wait­ing for the sun­set. And any­one who has been to western New South Wales will know how spec­tac­u­lar they can be.

This is the heart of The Long Pad­dock, a 600km-plus tourist drive that re­mem­bers the her­itage of drovers while pro­mot­ing the old stock route from Moama on the Mur­ray River to Wil­can­nia to the north of Bro­ken Hill.

It crosses five rivers – Dar­ling, Lach­lan, Mur­rumbidgee, Ed­ward and Mur­ray – and in an in­ter­est­ing con­cept uses artis­tic works to high­light the story of the land.

To stop and view The Head­less Horse­man sculp­tures at the Black Swamp at sun­set is one of the great out­back Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ences.

The Head­less Horse­man sculp­tures are part of a Long Pad­dock series ... 11 ma­jor art works and 52 in­for­ma­tion points along the route.

The Head­less Horse­man, cre­ated in metal by Castle­maine sculp­tor Ge­off Hock­ing, is be­tween Wan­ganella and Boorooban.

In the mid 19th-cen­tury, drovers told sto­ries of a head­less horse­man who ap­peared sud­denly at a camp­site, mounted and wear­ing a cloak, who would spook the an­i­mals and cause a stam­pede.

It was said to be the ghost of a drover who died at the swamp. Yet there’s more to this le­gend.

Ali McLean, from Booli­gal, a good hour’s drive north of the Black Swamp, is one of those in­volved in the Long Pad­dock tour­ing route.

As the sun started to sink be­hind the sculp­ture, she told me the ARTback project started in 2009 to cre­ate five sculp­tures along the route.

It was to en­cour­age vis­i­tors to the re­gion and at­tracted 180 sub­mis­sions, leav­ing the com­mit­tee to choose the ones con­sid­ered most ap­pro­pri­ate.

The Head­less Horse­man sculp­tures stand four me­tres high, made from laser-cut steel with a rusty patina, and set atop three-me­tre long red-gum posts.

They de­pict a cat­tle drive, with two mounted drovers, cat­tle dogs and a sep­a­rate char­ac­ter ... the head­less horse­man.

The le­gend was per­pet­u­ated by a lo­cal butcher from nearby Moulamein, who was a small-time cat­tle duf­fer steal­ing from the herds camped at the swamp and selling his goods through the pubs across the district.

The Black Swamp not only hosts a le­gend but helped open up the plains coun­try. A shal­low basin al­most one kilo­me­tre across, the swamp is cov­ered with lignum bushes and partly fringed with black box trees. When full, the wa­ter is about waist deep.

It was thought it got its name from the dark colour of the wa­ter from de­cay­ing plant mat­ter but early maps show a tribe of Abo­rig­ines usu­ally camped there. This is sup­ported by the presence of at least one large mid­den on the perime­ter.

The Black Swamp hosted a coach chang­ing sta­tion from 1859, when Ed­ward Smith built a cot­tage as well on the low sand­hill at the east­ern edge of the swamp. Even­tu­ally he started the Black Swamp (Trot­ting Cob) Ho­tel that closed in 1887.

Ali tells me there is an­other sculp­ture at Ivan­hoe – The Pioneers, a spec­tac­u­lar three-di­men­sional mu­ral by Wayne Strick­land that doc­u­ments the his­tory of the district.

Three sculp­tures at Hay started a whole new pro­gram.

In the area known as Bushy Bend, on the north­ern east­ern side of the Mur­rumbidgee River, you will find Lang’s Cross­ing, Cobb’s Wheels and Mur­rumbidgee Land­scapes, all by John Wheeler.

At Pretty Pine you will find Smoko, by Ge­off Hock­ing.

There are two works in De­niliquin, both by Jonathan Leahy – Shod, a half bul­lock shoe in hon­our of the bul­lock teams that carted the wool bales to a wharf for ship­ment. Those wharves could have been at Hay or Moama. The other is Cut, a cir­cu­lar saw blade and log to hon­our the tim­ber in­dus­try.

Two more art­works are in Mathoura – The Drover and Horse by Corey Thomas plus the Tim­ber Cut­ters by Ge­off Hock­ing.

In Moama, near the Ker­re­bee Sound Shell off the Cobb High­way, you will find The Barges, also by Ge­off Hock­ing (2012).

Ali, from Syd­ney orig­i­nally, tells me about life at Booli­gal, made fa­mous by a Banjo Pater­son poem: Hay and Hell and Booli­gal.

Ap­par­ently Pater­son’s ver­sion of Hell re­lated to the One Tree Ho­tel at Ulonga, mid­way be­tween Hay and Booli­gal.

To­day it is an at­trac­tion, show­ing coun­try life at its hottest, dri­est and flat­test. While last drinks were served at the pub in 1984 it is now used as an events cen­tre.

Ali’s jour­ney from Syd­ney to Booli­gal started with an in­vi­ta­tion from her school friend to come out west to a rugby re­union for the Hill­ston Hay Cut­ters.

That’s where she met Hamish McLean, who was to be­come her hus­band.

At Booli­gal they have about 11,300 hectares, which is a bit on the small side by out­back New South Wales stan­dards, Ali says. But they run dor­per sheep on salt­bush be­cause of its drought tol­er­ance in ex­treme con­di­tions.

“The strong flavour of the salt­bush gives the meat a softer taste with bet­ter mar­bling,’’ Ali says. “A bit like waygu beef in that re­gard.”

The dor­per breed was de­vel­oped in South Africa in the 1930s and in­tro­duced into Aus­tralia in 1996.

It is be­com­ing one of the fastest grow­ing sheep breeds due to their po­ten­tial to adapt to the many vary­ing cli­mates and graz­ing con­di­tions that Aus­tralia has to of­fer.

Dor­pers were bred to pro­duce a high qual­ity car­case un­der ex­ten­sive con­di­tions, thus have the rep­u­ta­tion of rapid weight gain, ex­cel­lent car­case con­for­ma­tion and fan­tas­tic fat dis­tri­bu­tion.

Booli­gal, which means windy place, large swamp or place of flooded box trees, is on the Lach­lan River and at the heart of the Long Pad­dock.

The term came about from gra­ziers be­ing able to turn their stock out onto “the long pad­dock” in times of drought or to take them to mar­ket.

It started with the Vic­to­rian gold rush in the mid-1800s, Ali tells me, when cat­tle were brought down from Queens­land.

“There was no way of keep­ing meat fresh on the gold field in those days so they made sure there was plenty of live stock.’’

To­day, property own­ers can ap­ply to Lo­cal Land Ser­vices to use the stock route when feed is short.

Yet they have to move the stock ev­ery day.

While Lo­cal Land Ser­vices con­trols it, the drovers them­selves know when it is needed or can sup­port it.

Peo­ple have a ro­man­tic idea about drov­ing, Ali says, such as Pater­son’s fa­mous Clancy of The Over­flow.

“As the stock are slowly string­ing, Clancy rides be­hind them sing­ing,

For the drover’s life has plea­sures that the towns­folk never know.’’

But it’s bloody hard work, I am re­minded. You have to get the an­i­mals wa­tered ev­ery day.

Re­ally, the drover’s life hasn’t changed much since the 1870s.


The le­gend of the Head­less Horse­man arose when a drover named Doyle died at the Black Swamp in the early 1850s.

The drovers would tell of hav­ing seen the ghost of Doyle while they were camped at the swamp.

The said Doyle was rid­ing about the camp at night on a short-legged horse – a trot­ting cob.

Over­lan­ders be­gan to dread camp­ing there, be­liev­ing sight of the ap­pari­tion spelled their own doom.

Writ­ers at the time did not state the man­ner of Doyle’s death but the le­gend per­se­vered in the form of a head­less rider mounted on a trot­ting cob.

The le­gend has been handed down through the years.

J.E.P Bushby’s Salt­bush Coun­try tells how he would ap­pear sud­denly, mounted on a cob, a cloak wrapped around him – but with­out a head.

“He passed through the camp like a phan­tom, caus­ing the cat­tle to rush and the dogs to shrink away ... ter­ror would fol­low ... cat­tle, dogs, drovers all in a wild stam­pede.” Ad­van­tage was taken of this le­gend by the Moule­mein butcher to aug­ment his meat sup­plies.

When the bush tele­graph told of the ap­proach of a mob of “old Tyson’s” cat­tle he would camp at the Black Swamp and await their ar­rival.

His tech­nique was to throw a cloak over a wooden frame on his shoul­ders, giv­ing the ap­pear­ance of the stump of a neck but hav­ing no head.

He ap­proached the rest­ing herd at a trot, know­ing that cat­tle on strange ground are eas­ily spooked.

Hav­ing put the cat­tle on their feet he would cut off a few head, drive them into the bracken around the swamp and later drive them leisurely to slaugh­ter, to end up on the cut­ting carts of Moule­mein, Hay and De­niliquin.

The horse­man was wise enough to con­fine his duff­ing to small num­bers so was never mo­lested by the at­ten­tion of the troop­ers.

These ac­tiv­i­ties con­tin­ued un­til the fenc­ing of the runs made the move­ment of stock too dif­fi­cult.

Char­lie Lee, who drove the De­niliquin-Hay coach for years, claimed that he saw the horse­man in ac­tion.

The story goes that Char­lie saw the trot­ting cob tak­ing its head­less rider home to die.

Per­haps a fit­ting post­script to what is one of the finest leg­ends in the whole out­back of Aus­tralia.


On the flat­test plains in the South­ern Hemi­sphere, you can dis­cover the le­gend of the Head­less Horse­man as part of the Long Pad­dock series of art sculp­tures.


OLD TALE: The Head­less Horse­man sculp­ture at sun­set is one of the great out­back Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ences.


The Long Pad­dock crosses five rivers and cuts through the Hay Plains, as it fol­lows the out­back stock routes.


The Long Pad­dock tourist route along the Cobb High­way re­mem­bers the her­itage of drovers while pro­mot­ing the old stock route from Moama on the Mur­ray River to Wil­can­nia to the north of Bro­ken Hill.


The Head­less Horse­man, a dra­matic art­work cre­ated in metal by Castle­maine sculp­tor Ge­off Hock­ing, at the Black Swamp be­tween Wan­ganella and Boorooban.


Booli­gal’s Ali McLean talks about the ARTback project that started the Long Pad­dock sculp­tures.

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